We had a great trip to Ohio, but it is inevitable when the Shutt clan gets together that we dissect the world and talk about the heavy stuff like death, faith and faith issues. Gretchen has been taking courses at her church and right now she is doing a course on comparative religions, so she spent quite a bit of time interviewing folks about what they believe. Her assignment included discerning whether we were theists, humanists, or agnostic/atheist. What she discovered was that most of us Shutt/James are theists, but skeptical theists! Yes, we believe in a higher power. Yes, we believe in a divine creative force, yes, we recognize there is something unique about Jesus, but the rest is up for grabs. Big surprise, huh?
I really tried to keep my big mouth shut and listen, which was difficult. Even so I recommend listening to all of you. Listening to others without trying to formulate a response or clarification or rebuttal can be very instructive. The more she probed the more she realized that the skeptic's position does not oppose faith. In fact, it often exemplifies a deep but unconventional faith. After all, Paul himself reminds us, faith is holding on to things we long for, things we cannot see or prove.
I have struggled with “faith” all of my life. Partly because faith is generally defines as an absence of doubt. I can still tap into the pain I felt as a young adult listening to my elders talk about faith. I'd be rich is I had a dollar for every time I heard Prof Martin say “you just have to have faith.” Yet when I asked “but how do I get faith” the answer was a vague “you just have to have faith” which never seemed very helpful. I found far more reassurance is Jesus affirmation of Thomas, because Thomas's response is one I can understand. "Show me!"
Having grown up in FMC I learned early that paradoxical thinking is ok, in fact, for the faith journey is a paradoxical one. Questioning is an important aspect of any spiritual journey because a sustaining faith does not come from blindly accepting what others say or swallowing dogmatic statements taught by some accepted authority or reading the Bible literally. While that has been reassuring in one way, that also left me open to doubt and struggling. I can assure you that for some of us “I told you so” just doesn't work even if we'd want it to. Some of us have these weird personalities whereby we seem compelled to question and struggle with everything. I suspect that's why I've been so attracted to the 12 steps because one of the basic premises of the 12 step program and its spiritual principles is one can only follow “the god of your understanding.”
And so I struggle with the question of whether my intuitively sensing that something larger exists apart from us is enough for a Christian's faith? Was there really a Jesus? Does it matter? Is it enough to be so attracted to what Jesus represents that I feel impelled to try to model my life after his teachings and life enough? Is hoping that something positive, dynamic, creative, imaginative exists even when war and violence, addiction and greed and pain and suffering exists...is this faith?
Aa I approach my 79th birthday I've become even more convinced that there truly is a benevolent creative force behind life and creation. Of course, my family environment helped. As did this growing up in this church. As did going to Bluffton College where I was reminded over and over that nothing we can learn or do can undermine God, for God is always bigger, always greater, always that force behind any discovery, the source for what we are learning.
Over time I've come to understand that I truly live by faith everyday. I have faith that when I flip a light switch a light will come on. I have faith the car will start. That Earl will be supportive. That Fairfield Mennonite will keep on being here and supportive of each of us as we walk together on our journey of faith. That I will have enough to eat. That the will sun come up and set. All this even when it doesn't always happen. Light bulbs burn out. The power goes off. The car doesn't start. Earl 's sometimes grumpy and critical. FMC almost imploded a number of years ago when our little group experienced that most painful of all experiences...a church split. Loved ones die. Some days it's cloudy and I can't see the sun. Yet I keep on keeping on, because I have sure of the basic dependibility of life. Somewhere along the line I've discovered that practicing gratitude creates a spiral of goodness and inner contentment for me. For me, at least, it's by being grateful for all the little things which we take for granted that I find daily affirmation that love is really stronger than hate, that good does overcome evil, even if only in small ways.
When we travel I get the back seat--- which is just where I want to be--- except my aging ears don't hear too well and all I get are parts of the conversation going on in the front seat. But that was enough this trip as I'd been mulling over what I wanted to say this morning when I took my turn preaching. When I heard Gretchen interviewing Earl about what he believed or didn't, I found myself thinking of C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. As so often happens for me, I find more answers to my faith questions in fiction than Scripture or overt religious writings. In Lewis's book THE SILVER CHAIR the children find themselves trapped in a dark, hot, frightening underworld with the lost prince and the green lady(an evil witch.) Puddlglum, a Marsh Wiggle, is with them. Now Marshwiggles being half frog and half human are naturally skeptical creatures. If there is a way to put a negative spin on something, the marshwiggle will find it, so it is inevitable that the Marsh Wiggle saves the day, for skeptics are more difficult to disillusion that those who simply assume that the good get rewarded. You see, once the Green Lady has everyone in the same room she casts her hypnotic spell over the prince and the children convincing them that nothing exists except the underworld they are experiencing, a world where everything is dark and gloomy. So it is the Marsh Wiggle who is skeptical that what she is saying is the complete truth. Even when she glows with a seductive beauty, entertains them with her wonderful music, drugs them with an incense she throws on the fire... all the while telling the children that Narnia does not exist, that there is no world of love and laughter, sunshine, stars, fresh water, light, talking animals, friendship and hope. But Puddleglum, struggling to resist the green lady's spell forces himself to stamp out the fire and the drugging effect of the incense though it burns his webbed feet terribly and causes a terrible stink. So the children and the prince escape and run for their lives toward the surface where they believe/hope that Narnia does exist, even as the underworld crumbles around them....not knowing anything more than they have to keep climbing up toward what they believe is the way back to Narnia.
That, my friends, is my metaphor for a skeptic's faith. I am a skeptical Puddleglum. Like him I finds myself unimpressed with what the this world offers with its commercialism and materialism and ISSIS and gun violence, racism, sexism, and greedy oligarchs running our country. Maybe that is all there is. Maybe. Even so I choose to believe that Narnia exists. Whether or not Jesus ever lived or there is life after death, doesn't really matter to me. The promise that that what Jesus represents, that the stories surrounding Jesus and how he lived, taught, and treated people shows me there can indeed be a different way to live right now in this broken world. Even as I struggle with my questions and doubts in a crumbling world filled with darkness and hate, in the end the hope, no a conviction, that a Narnia might exist becomes enough for me to hang on and keep reaching for something higher, something better than what I see. My deep longing for something more keeps me living day by day with gratitude, joy and contentment. You see, in spite of my doubts, I have faith that my random acts of kindness, my feeble attempts at loving my enemies, my inadequate efforts to 'feed my sheep” does in some unknown way flip as a divinely wired switch of love and goodness. And that is enough.
For we fix our attention not on things that are seen, but on things that are unseen. What we can see lasts only for a time, but what we cannot see lasts forever.” Or as Peterson says in The Message” “There's more here than meets the eye.”